Waterloo Courier: Conservative student’s suspension, walkout raise fairness concerns for family

Originally posted at the Waterloo Courier.

WATERLOO, IA — A family says their son’s suspension from West High School earlier this month was discrimination for conservative political views expressed on social media.

Ron and Michelle Duncan also believe Friday’s student protest of gun violence provides further evidence of liberal bias among the school’s staff.

The Waterloo couple has contacted Freedom X, a Los Angeles-based organization that describes itself as being dedicated to protecting religious and conservative freedom of expression. The organization has sent a letter to Waterloo Community Schools’ Superintendent Jane Lindaman warning of “potential litigation” related to concerns about the suspension and student walkout.

“Our son’s suspension is a violation of his freedom of speech,” the Duncans wrote in a statement to The Courier. “We have sought legal action and have retained the services of attorney Bill Becker from Freedom X.”

District spokeswoman Tara Thomas said, “We do have an attorney that is addressing the communication.”

Michelle Duncan said Black Hawk County Republican party officials helped them contact the organization after the suspension. They also talked to the organization about concerns related to the student walkout.

“This is another indicator that West High School seems to have a left wing political bias,” their statement continues. “We are very worried for other students’ safety, especially those who have a different worldview than the staff at West High School.

“All we’re asking for is a fair, equal and tolerant environment for all our children to learn in without blatant political bias interrupting and influencing our children into a one-sided way of thinking while silencing opposing viewpoints. We hope and pray that this gets resolved swiftly and quickly.”

Junior Beau Duncan was suspended for three days starting April 6, according to his dad. Although the district won’t comment on student discipline, The Courier obtained a copy of the letter Freedom X sent to Lindaman.

The letter claims the district began looking at Beau’s Twitter account, @conservedwahawk, after receiving complaints from other students about what he was posting. Upon suspension, he was told to no longer use the West High logo on his Twitter page or “wahawk” as part of his Twitter handle, according to the letter. The account, which included a disclaimer that it was not affiliated with West High School, has since been taken down.

Without commenting on the suspension, Thomas said students aren’t allowed to use Waterloo Schools’ logos in their social media “if it misrepresents the school district.”

She added, “Our logos are trademarked. Legally speaking, that would be a violation of its use. They can’t use our logo as if they’re representative of our district.”

Freedom X attorney Becker questioned in a phone interview whether the district has a policy that would allow for suspension if students use the logo. “In their letter to me, they don’t provide me any legal support for their policy at all,” he said.

Thomas contended that, according to the district’s attorney, the trademark prohibits misuse even if that isn’t spelled out in a policy.

“We view this as an attempt to suppress (Beau’s) constitutional rights to express his views that the school may not agree with,” added Becker. He noted Beau posted the tweets outside of school.

He said if students promoting the walkout used the school’s logo on social media and weren’t similarly disciplined for it, that could indicate illegal “viewpoint discrimination” on the part of the school or its staff.

Thomas said students, not the school, organized the walkout and staff involvement is limited to supervising participants. The event is expected to last 17 minutes.

“We have enough resources that learning would continue in the classroom as scheduled,” she noted, for students who choose not to participate. “So, it’s not being endorsed by the district.”

Students who do participate in the walkout may face disciplinary action for their involvement. “The regular attendance policy would apply and students who leave class, it would be an unexcused absence,” said Thomas.

Becker acknowledged this may not be a clear cut case.

“It would be difficult to show viewpoint discrimination, because students do have a right to protest,” he said.

“Are we going to litigate the matter? Quite frankly, I can’t tell you right now. It’s something we are considering.”

Read more at the Waterloo Courier.